Ajahn Santacitto

Awakening the Compassionate Heart

"When we begin to appreciate what we have in common with those around us, then we realise that there are basically no boundaries, no ultimate separation. There is an interconnection which we can all be sensitive to and through which we can come in contact with each other."


THE THEME OF THIS TALK, ‘THE COMPASSIONATE HEART’, is a very broad and deep one which could be approached from many different perspectives. But – as with all Dhamma – to approach it from the right perspective means coming to terms with the experience of the world and of life as it comes to us. So when we talk of the compassionate heart, it’s only as a way of reflecting inwards, and of getting more in touch with what compassion means.

Compassion was one of the primary qualities by which the Buddha could be recognised; all his teachings came from the compassionate heart. It was how he related to his fellow human beings and was, in fact, the reason for his staying in this worldly realm when he had reached freedom. As tradition has it, when the Buddha reached enlightenment he considered very seriously how difficult it would be to teach the Truth – the Reality he’d discovered – because of how subtle the Truth is and how unsubtle is our way of living in the world. As the legend goes, while he was considering how serious these difficulties and obstacles to communication would be, the great Brahma god Sahampati, king of the higher heavens, appeared before him. Brahma Sahampati was feeling great concern for both humanity and heavenly beings, lest this opportunity to move towards enlightenment should be removed from the earth. Kneeling down and raising his hands in a respectful gesture, he requested ‘For the sake of those beings on this earth with only a little dust before their eyes, who will open their hearts to this Teaching – for their sake, I beseech you, teach the Dhamma, turn the Wheel of the Dhamma.’ The Brahma god Sahampati, being no fool, knew how to touch the Buddha in the right spot, for the sake of helping others. So, for this reason, the Buddha did survey the world and found it to be true there were such beings who would understand, even though it might be difficult to bring this Truth to manifest in people’s hearts. Then out of compassion he made the decision to stay and teach.

We have today a living refuge in Buddhism which we call the Triple Gem – the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. We can take refuge in the wisdom of the Buddha, a wisdom which is not to be found in the historical past, but only when we walk with it, live with it. Then we find it in our own actions, and speech, in our own hearts. It’s the same with the Dhamma, the refuge of Truth. This is found through coming into harmony with what is real, and always living in accordance with what is true in our lives. The Sangha, too, becomes a refuge, being that virtuous quality within us which responds to such teachings, and which responds to the reality that the Buddha pointed to; that vibrant quality in our hearts which makes us feel the urge and the need to live for more than just the immediate demands of our senses. This quality of compassion was primary to the Buddha and is primary to this Refuge, this reality, which we all have available, within us.

Today being Easter Sunday, it’s interesting to reflect that what led the Buddha onward in his search for enlightenment, that primary driving energy of compassion, was also present in the life of Christ. It was the concern for fellow humanity, the sharing of the reality of life with all of its insecurities, all of its pain and unsatisfactoriness. It seems that the more that individuals free themselves from the personal predicament, the more they are really in touch with the universal predicament. This is what brings up the response of compassion in the heart when we realize that this apparent separateness between us is only illusory, then we can’t help but allow our lives to be lived for the benefit of others. No longer can we just react in our habitual way for the sake of whatever pleasure or pain we may be experiencing. We become aware of a shared predicament, our shared humanity; and I find that it’s this awareness of our shared humanity where we come in touch with the compassionate heart – usually without being aware of it at first. When we begin to appreciate what we have in common with those around us, then we realise that there are basically no boundaries, no ultimate separation. There is an interconnection which we can all be sensitive to and through which we can come in contact with each other.

It’s this theme of shared humanity which I find very relevant for our time a time when we may be losing our sensitivity to it, a time when the trials and tribulations of a very confused world may lead us to forget what we know. It’s in this forgetfulness that we may live carelessly, but if one were to feel the call of the compassionate heart, there’s a path one can take in daily life. One can see there is always an opportunity to serve – through being in touch, through remembering; perhaps the very first step is to recognise our forgetfulness. Because until we are in touch with the quality and nature of forgetfulness, then we’re not really ready to remember.

Sometimes the act of compassion may be just in recognising one’s own fear and anxiety, those things which come up in relationship to people we meet. Often we sweep such anxieties under the rug for the sake of being able to smile and put on a polite social act; but is this really giving something of value to the other person? It’s difficult sometimes to convince ourselves otherwise, but I think it’s worth having the courage to be more in touch with what our feelings genuinely are; to really be there with that anxiety, that worry, with that subtle fear and discomfort. Then we can begin to see what effect this is actually having upon our ability to communicate and to share.

What this is pointing to is that the call of the compassionate heart is really one where living and serving in society, and serving oneself through making one’s life meaningful, must come together. In Buddhism we talk of this in the qualities of the Buddha, in whom compassion and wisdom are always interacting. Compassion alone can easily be drowned by the sorrows of humanity; one can easily be overwhelmed by the pain in the world. But wisdom acknowledges, comes into contact with pain and suffering, and allows it to be just as it is; and because it does allow the pain and suffering to be fully as it is, the clouds may clear a bit and one can look through another’s eyes and yet have a different perspective, maybe see what the opportunities are, what the way out might be.

This reminds me of when I was in Thailand with my teacher, Ajahn Chah. From the very first meeting with him I couldn’t help but be aware of how powerful a force was emanating from this person. It wasn’t until many years later that I realised that this first meeting was a kind of ‘death event’ where, like a fish, I became hooked, not knowing what was happening. I had just arrived at the monastery with a friend, and neither of us spoke much Thai, so the possibility of talking with and hearing Dhamma from Ajahn Chah was very limited. I was considering taking ordination as a monk mainly in order to learn about meditation, rather than from any serious inclination towards religious practice.

It happened that, just at that time, a group of local villagers came to ask him to perform a certain traditional ceremony which involved a great deal of ritual. The lay people bowed down before the Master, then they got completely covered over with a white cloth, and then holy water was brought out and candles were dripped into it while the monks did the chanting. And, young lad that I was – very science-minded, rather iconoclastic by nature – I found this all rather startling and wondered just what I was letting myself in for. Did I really want to become one of these guys and do this kind of thing?

So I just started to look around, watching this scene unfold before me, until my eye caught Ajahn Chah’s, and what I saw on his face was very unexpected there was the smile of a mischievous young man, as if he were saying, ‘Good fun, isn’t it?’ This threw me a bit; I could no longer think of him as being attached to this kind of ritual, and I began to appreciate his wisdom. But a few minutes later, when the ceremony was over and everyone got up and out from under the cloth, all looking very happy and elated, I noticed that the expression on his face had changed; no sign of that mischievous young lad. And although I couldn’t understand a word of Thai I couldn’t help but feel very deeply that quality of compassion in the way he took this opportunity of teaching people who otherwise might not have been open and susceptible. It was seeing how, rather than fighting and resisting social custom with its rites and rituals, he knew how to use it skilfully to help people. I think this is what hooked me.

It happened countless times people would come to the monastery with their problems looking for an easy answer, but somehow, whatever the circumstances, his approach never varied. He met everybody with a complete openness – with the ‘eyes of a babe’, as it seemed to me – no matter who they were. One day a very large Chinese businessman came to visit; he did his rather disrespectful form of bowing, and as he did so his sports shirt slipped over his back pocket – and out stuck a pistol. Carrying a pistol is about the grossest thing you can do in coming to see an Ajahn in a Thai monastery! That really took me aback, but what struck me most of all was when Ajahn Chah looked at him, there was that same openness, no difference, ‘eyes like a babe’. There was a complete openness and willingness to go into the other person’s world, to be there, to experience it, to share it with them.

Coming into contact with such inspiring people as Ajahn Chah, beings from whose lives the quality of selfishness seems to have completely disappeared, one can’t help but feel a response within the heart – the heart of compassion. One sees them living in that compassionate way, giving and serving selflessly and opening up opportunities for people who otherwise would be drowning. In Christianity, too, one can see how that leads to such great devotion to the image of Christ, who gave his life in the most difficult and painful way in response to this compassion for all of humanity.

It may be that we find there are times in our lives when we feel a call to serve, a selfless desire to give or help in some way. Often we respond to another person just because we think they will respond to us; we’ll give and then maybe they’ll give – or it’s socially expected to do so. But there’s a dryness in that and one can go through life without ever really feeling where one’s heart is. But there may be times when human need touches us and we feel ourselves present in a qualitative way. The possibility of somehow being of help opens the heart and we can be there with the person in their pain.

I experienced this opening of the heart at the time of my mother’s death last year – it got me in contact with my own personal pettiness. I realised that this was the very reason why I had never really been able to help my mother. No matter how much I had wanted to at that time, I couldn’t, because of the blockage of my own personal poverty, this selfishness which remained. It was this despair, of seeing one’s smallness, that opened the heart to the possibility of somehow being of help.

This is what another’s pain can do for us, it can get us in touch with our own pain, it can help us to remember our own separateness. We can’t help when we separate ourselves, so we can’t be in the place of the other; and remembering this is painful.

I’ve found there’s a grace, an openness that comes when you fully submit to the Truth that you don’t know, you really don’t know what you can do. It’s the willingness to be in touch with that separateness, with that feeling of being trapped, from which can arise the real possibility of sharing not just another’s pain, but their way out of that pain. And when we’re there with them sharing that together, if we’re clear and genuine enough, then when the opening begins to come we naturally move towards it without even thinking about it. We’re just there, fully alert to the opportunities for that act of giving oneself, or giving up oneself.

Giving can often be very ordinary; we can give gifts, we can give our attention, our sympathy, our kind words and our friendship as we go through life. But when the compassionate heart is touched, the demand to give seems to be greater. Being in touch with our own poverty, we have to be willing to give up even what little we do have. And this response doesn’t come from our ideas about how things work, some explanation of the subconscious, or some philosophical understanding of life. It never comes from that because that’s in the head, that’s not from the heart. When someone really needs the response of another human being, it has to be a real giving of the moment.

So one doesn’t really know what one gives, one just allows it to happen, allowing oneself to be a channel by giving up what is blocking it, giving up ‘me’. Perhaps this is the message of Easter, the compassionate response to experiencing this death of self in smaller or larger ways. Then there is the resurrection; there is this new life of spontaneous service, spontaneous giving, where the meaning in life no longer has to be sought, it’s experienced in living. Because, as I’m sure you’ve found, when you’ve had this great opportunity of sharing and giving to another, there’s no longer any doubt and question about the purpose of life; in the joy there’s no room for it. This is the strange quality of the pain of compassion – it’s a bitter-sweet pain. Even though one has to be really willing to be there in an uncomfortable place, there’s a certain warmth in that place, a certain joyous warmth, which provides the strength to just remain in touch.

Compassion, in Buddhism, is also a practice fully in harmony with wisdom, and based on self-understanding. Abiding in and spreading the quality of compassion can be developed quite formally as a meditation. When we’re quiet, when we turn inward to the silence in which we can free ourselves from our anxieties and fear, we can get in touch with the heart. Then, in turning the mind towards the needs of others, there is the possibility of responding with compassion. And one can develop this and then, because of our shared predicament, allow it to spread and radiate outward towards those in need, and towards all humanity. So when we sit quietly, we can reflect on what the obstacles are, and on what it is that prevents us from living in a way which manifests this quality. Sometimes when we feel pity for another, it’s just a ritual compassion, and often it’s just a cover-up. Sometimes it’s just a kind of guilt; you know you should be feeling compassion but it’s not really there, so you feel sorry for them instead. This can be a real obstacle, and it’s not until we recognise where we’re stuck that we can free ourselves. Just recognising that, just being honest with ourselves, is often enough to give that bit of space for something to happen.

This is one of the beautiful qualities of the compassionate heart – it never suffers because of the truth. No matter how much we reflect truth back onto it, truth only nourishes the compassionate heart. One’s pity and one’s anxieties may dissolve into nothingness, but the quality of compassion responds to truth.

What this seems to be telling us is that compassion is our true nature, although this is something that we each have to look into for ourselves, not to take as a doctrine. Is compassion our true nature? I think it’s only when we’re in touch with the world – not when we’re just sitting and enjoying the bliss of high-minded thoughts about humanity – that we can really get the answer. It doesn’t mean that we have to be able to walk around feeling great empathy for everyone we see, but if we can at least be in touch with what it is which is preventing us from feeling empathy and compassion, then we realise that we’re in exile. And this is the pain of our separateness, why it is that separation from the rest of humanity is suffering. Because when we’re separate, we’re in exile from our own hearts, and it’s not until we’ve been allowed that opportunity to return that we have that sense of being at home, that place where we can be at peace.

I remember the Dalai Lama once saying that the quickest and the greatest path to freedom from suffering lies in taking upon oneself the suffering of others, and I think that’s very true. I know that when one is in touch with the compassionate heart when serving others, one is developing the ability to deal with that which is painful in life. On the coarsest level, it’s a practice or development of the profession of helping and as one helps another, one can of course help oneself. But the greatest help to oneself in the act of giving is that forced remembering, of being unavoidably grounded, back into the reality of things, into what the Buddha called ‘dukkha’ – the fragmented and separate nature of existence. So whenever someone brings their pain to us, we’re given the chance to get back in touch with that truth which is within us, to come back down to earth – and to grow in the process.

But it’s also important to look at what happens if we turn our backs, or we can’t be bothered; to see what the fruit of that is, and to look carefully again into the heart. The Buddhist path is one of learning from everything, not of avoiding or turning one’s back. When unskilfulness in our habits arises, to cover it up and try to ignore it only feeds that unskilfulness, and gives it a chance to arise again. We must have the courage to be fully with that unskilful experience. If we respond to another’s difficulty by turning away, and if we also turn away from the result of that in our hearts, then we’ve truly lost, at all levels. But if we can at least remember after turning away – when we begin to sense that reaction – the ‘true penance’ is to be fully with the result, and the fruit of that action. One doesn’t have to feel guilt, or torture oneself, or blame oneself one just recognises what the results are. This is what it means to be fully responsible for one’s fellow human beings, for better or for worse to see what the cause and effect is, to be there, and to be able to respond.

One curious aspect of understanding cause and effect is that even though rational investigation can be helpful, it can also be an obstacle, because the real seeing is with the heart. The preparation of this talk was a very real lesson in this for me. The subtle insecurities and worries which arose at the prospect of giving a public talk led me to look for the security of having something to say – and I came up with all sorts of wonderful ideas, fourteen pages of notes, brilliant! ‘I could write a book on this.’

But yesterday the time came to get it all together, and my mind just collapsed, I couldn’t do it, the head had taken over. Lovely ideas but the more I wrote about it, the less I had it. So that was really a powerful lesson that the head can be the greatest obstacle to seeing with the heart. It was difficult, actually, to give up all my notes; they were so pretty with all these different coloured magic markers on them, green and blue and yellow; such an original effect! But what a relief it was to put down that burden, because it had got heavier and heavier as the hours went on. So if we do ever have a chance to help, our own brilliant ideas of how we’re going to go about doing it are something to watch out for!

I’d like to share something else with you, because it was where this term ‘shared humanity’ came up for me. A few weeks ago there was an invitation to a rather mysterious meeting, a sort of inter-faith mingling of minds and hearts. There was a Sufi, a Swami, a Bishop, an Anglican businessman and a Buddhist monk, all of us invited to the same place to share something, though we didn’t know what until we got there. As it turned out, the question under consideration was ‘Can we pray together?’ Well, being a Buddhist monk, I felt a bit left out, but in the end what we did was very Buddhist. We agreed there were no common words, so we decided to dispense with words, and the silence that we shared after talking was extraordinary. I think each one of us found it an amazing experience. Then we began to talk again, although it wasn’t what you might call a ‘dialogue’, because we weren’t talking about Buddhism or Christianity. We had found a contact point, and just by keeping in touch with that point, what came afterwards was a natural expansion into words – the communication became more real. It was a very beautiful experience and I’m sure it came from just being in touch with our shared humanity the communion in silence which allowed communication to happen in its most genuine sense.

I don’t know how many of you have ever travelled. It’s a strange experience when you’re in an entirely foreign country with an unfamiliar culture and people who speak a different language. Yet there’s always something to share. One of my fondest memories was when I was in Ethiopia hitching down to Kenya. It was night and there weren’t any cars, only a man walking in the same direction along the road. He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t even know what the local language was, but he was obviously concerned about me. In sign language he asked me where I was going, how I was getting there and where was I going to spend the night? I pointed out a flat piece of ground and that I had a sleeping bag, so there was no problem; but he obviously thought that would be very dangerous and indicated for me to follow him.

He took me to where his wife and two young children lived, in a circular mound of earth with a grass roof; it was my first experience of such a home. Inside there was one bed, and in the middle there were a few sticks of wood, not even a fireplace or stove. Then I saw the man take a little cloth purse from which he gave a coin or two to his small son, who went running off and came back with a little package of tea and a bit of bread for the guest. It was extremely touching; there was I, a complete stranger, and yet he offered part of the family treasure so that I should have something reasonable to eat. That night, the family wouldn’t sleep on their bed, it was for the guest; and the next morning, when the man took me back to the road, he didn’t ask for anything in return.

There was such a sense of warmth and contact which made the language barrier totally insignificant, and the cultural difference totally irrelevant; the kindness of his act just went so deep. It brought out in me something that had never happened before. Previously, from feelings of self-righteousness I had never given money to beggars – poetic justice! – but I couldn’t resist the urge to give him some money as an offering in return. He knew that I wasn’t paying him, there was no expectation of that; he just took it as a gift, and he had the same warmth in receiving as in giving. No doubt it’s easier to feel this shared humanity with people who live in a very basic, simple way, but for me it left a deep and lasting impression, a true expression of the generosity of the compassionate heart.